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Central Asian Republics Struggle with Soviet Legacy - 2003-06-30

Herding Russian peasants into so-called collectives was one of the most destructive acts of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. But it occurred in the 1930’s. So on his visit to now independent Uzbekistan, anthropologist Russell Zanca thought local officials would be willing to talk about it. They weren’t.

“As much as you think, hey, come on, it’s a decade past the Soviet system and you think these guys are going to work in a different way. And they just work the same old way,” he says. “They always try to put the brakes on whatever you are doing. They always try to make things take as long as possible and put you in a direction you do not want go. So they are definitely there, and they are entrenched and things will not change that quickly.”

A professor at Northeastern University of Illinois in Chicago, Mr. Zanca says his experience shows the grip Soviet thinking still has on Uzbekistan and the other four countries of Central Asia.

That is confirmed by a recent report by the International Crisis Group, which says the region has a last chance for change before it plunges into perhaps irreversible decline. So little progress has been made that many Central Asians look back on Soviet times as the good old days. Then, they say, despite the lack of freedom, they had a better life and more security.

Professor Zanca notes just as in the Soviet era, people are torn within. “When you look at the society on the surface,” he says, “you think this place has it together. It seems pretty normal. People are well dressed and well fed. They are intelligent. They are well read. Then all you have to do is scratch it, and this torrent of complaint comes out of people from all walks of life.”

The complaints are as widespread as the corruption, says Professor Zanca. Bribery is routine in terms of seeing a doctor, getting into a school, avoiding arrest on some petty grounds.

The ICG reports a Kyrgyz police officer who went on a business trip for two weeks. When he returned, he found someone had bought his job for $3,000. He could not get it back.

When it was revealed that Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev had deposited $1 billion of state finances in his personal Swiss bank account, he was puzzled by the criticism. After all, he’s the father of his country.

Too many of these Central Asian fathers are left over from Soviet times, notes the ICG, and their probable successors do not appear to be much of an improvement. That’s why progress has stalled, says Mehrdad Haghayeghi, professor of political science at Southwest Missouri State University.

“There is a legacy of Soviet colonialism,” he says, “that has created a lopsided modernization of these countries that now they have to deal with and try to rectify. There has not been a transition of power. These republics have continued on the political level the old Soviet tradition and Soviet nomenclatura, and unfortunately many of them are young enough to be around for another perhaps 20 years.”

This surviving nomenclatura fears the private sector could erode its power, says the ICG. So anyone wanting to start a business has to include the appropriate officials in it.

If government is one problem for aspiring entrepreneurs, criminal bands are another. In a remote area of Kyrgyzstan, armed thugs chased out the owner of a successful cotton factory. When the Kyrgyz government belatedly ordered police to reclaim the factory, private security guards kept them out.

Now that westerners are increasingly involved in Central Asia, says Professor Haghayeghi, they need to insist on greater transparency in all business dealings. Too often they go along with local shady practices.

“That would deal at least partially with the problem of corruption that is draining these economies at a pace that has caused disillusionment with the majority of the population,” he says. “They do not think transition to a market economy is a good thing any more, and they have a longing for the Soviet welfare system to return. What needs to be done is a targeted but heavy capital investment.”

Professor Haghayeghi says western investors can build on the strengths and natural resources of the various republics. A hydroelectric industry in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, for example, could supply energy to neighboring countries and provide a source of revenue to finance other industries.

Joseph Presel, former U.S. ambassador to Uzbekistan, cautions against expecting too much too soon from Central Asia.

“In fairness to the countries in question,” he says, “the situations that they inherited were not exactly favorable for the kinds of economic, social and legal attitudes that we take as self-evident. None of these countries was exactly Norway. I always took the position while I was ambassador to Uzbekistan that while it was unfair to expect immediate adherence to full western standards involving civil rights, human rights, corruption and so on, it was reasonable to expect there to be progress towards them.”

Though independent, the Central Asian nations remain tied in many ways to Russia. If anything, Moscow is now strengthening these ties, says Professor Haghayeghi. It is a kind of foreign policy offensive exploiting the difficulties in Afghanistan.

“The drug trade has increased,” he says. “Drug production has increased. Fighting is going on between warlords and then between al-Qaida remnants and U.S. forces and then between warlords and the central government. So Russia is basically capitalizing on this news to come out of Afghanistan to argue: ‘Hey, maybe you want to rethink your reorientation toward the west and come back and be with us.’”

Russia may resent western intrusion in Central Asia, says Ambassador Presel, but Moscow knows it lacks the resources to develop the region. Western money is needed. So Moscow reacts pragmatically.

“I think the Russian Government has been extraordinarily sensible in accepting, for example, that the United States should be able to use air fields in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan in its offensive in Afghanistan,” he says. “I think their willingness to accept foreign direct investment in all of these countries is a welcome sign of maturity.”

Central Asia is not the Russian equivalent of the American West, as many assume, says Ambassador Presel. It’s not the same. The region was a late acquisition of the Russian Empire and with the exception of some oil and gas, it has not been all that valuable to Moscow.

But it is large and worthy enough, says the ICG, to deserve the world’s attention as it drifts toward a desolate future that could be marked by violence and upheaval.